God's gonna trouble the water: the essence of African American spirituality.
The message of salvation and freedom contained in those old songs has power today for all those who experience oppression.
"When you hear Chinese dissidents singing black spirituals in Tiananmen Square, or when you hear 'We Shall Overcome' being sung in Berlin when the wall goes down, you've got to say there's something here that is very American. And it is the deepest liberation theology."
Brown has written and lectured extensively on African American theology and spirituality. He is a former associate professor of theology at the graduate school at Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he also taught at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies.
What is African American spirituality?
W.E.B. Du Bois, the great educator and writer, said in 1903 that there's forever a strife between being a Negro and being an American. But he also said something that really touches me as the key to black spirituality - that this strife is so overwhelming that only the Negro's dogged strength alone keeps him from being torn asunder.
Where does this "dogged strength" come from? That's where spirituality is.
African American spirituality is also contemplative, holistic, joyful, and based in music. And the music is the key to culture.
Which hymn do you think best represents African American spirituality?
I think the song "Wade in the Water" is a touchstone of black spirituality that can be useful to anyone:
Wade in the water, Wade in the water, children, Wade in the water, God's agonna trouble the water. See that band all dressed in white The leader looks like an Israelite - God's agonna trouble the water. See that band all dressed in red It looks like the band that Moses led - God's agonna trouble the water.
This song is saying that whatever's out there, get into the middle of it because some of the upheaval comes from God. That's confrontation spirituality.
The songwriters who came up with these verses are as sophisticated theologians as anybody can find. You've got the water imagery of danger, liberation, and healing, and you have slaves, exiles, and cripples who are supposed to get in the water because God touches the water, stirs it up, and then they get healed.
But the American way is to avoid controversy at all costs. We say, "Don't stir up the water." Well if you don't, it's going to boil over, anyhow. But if you're not afraid to step into the water on faith, you might be far ahead of the game. That's traditional African American spirituality.
What role did slavery play in shaping African American spirituals?
If there were no slaveholders and slaves, the songs would not sound the way they do. Take the song, "All God's Children Got Shoes." The song says, "Everybody talking 'bout heaven ain't going there." That's not funny; it's what Jesus said. The Bible says, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God" (Matt. 7:21).
"All God's Children Got Shoes" was sung because someone was standing in the back of the church with a gun making sure that the slaves were not saying anything subversive, radical, or revolutionary.
But the slaves found a way to say that no matter what those folks call you, no matter what they do, we know who we are, and we're on our journey to the kingdom.
And the experience of singing these spirituals is so universal that everybody joins in; you can see this in any black congregation. Somebody gets up and sings "Precious Lord" or "Calvary" and the whole church starts to get excited, and they hum or clap or somehow respond to say that this is my experience, too, and I must join your performance.
How does this compare to music in most Catholic churches?
We had a lot of different experiences during the music renaissance in the Catholic Church, but it was seldom that the music spoke to the concrete social condition of the singers. And the music alienated a lot of the congregants.
You don't clap along to Beethoven - you attend a performance, and you are not involved in the worship experience. That's bad liturgy, but it's the touchstone of most American Catholic liturgical life.
But when you find out how many American folk melodies are songs we can sing, then you start to have an American liturgy. And if you're going to be dealing with American folk melodies, then why not go to those songs that the entire world has said have sparked and nourished their spirituality?
When you hear Chinese dissidents singing black spirituals in Tiananmen Square, or when you hear "We Shall Overcome" being sung in Berlin when the wall goes down, you've got to say there's something here that is very American. And it is the deepest liberation theology anyone ever designed.
Aren't there some African Americans who don't like singing the spirituals?
Yes. The man who organized the Fisk University Jubilee Singers in Nashville, Tennessee had to force some of his choir members to sing slave songs because they were in the struggle of being black in America. What does it mean to be an American? Italian, Russian, and Polish immigrants all had to decide what that means.
And this is why I have some strong problems with the Catholic school system. It was supposed to be a mediating institution to get immigrant children established as Americans without them losing their cultural identity and piety. But it was inevitable that the more the schools trained, the more American and the less Irish or Polish the subsequent generations became.
This is why I can understand why someone would say, "I'm no longer a slave, and I don't want to sound like one by singing those slave songs." I understand that because our entire culture demands it.
Marian Anderson used to sing a song that went something like, "I was born a Methodist, put I'm going to die on the Episcopal side." So that as you make economic progress, you leave the enthusiastic charismatic Pentecostal religions.
What was your experience of spirituality while growing up?
My mother was born Baptist, and my father was born Methodist. They got married and stopped going to church. My grandmother sat them down and said, "I really don't care what church you go to, but you have children; therefore, you are obligated to go to somebody's church."
Because the Catholic missionaries in East St. Louis in the '30s were doing a lot of social good for black people, my parents joined the Catholic Church.
Even though my grandmother was not Catholic, she made sure we followed Catholic practices. Friday we ate fish. Sunday morning she got me up to go to serve at Mass at St. Augustine's Church. And my grandmother would also take me to her church.
My mother sang all of that Latin music in the choir at St. Augustine's Church, but she also listened to St. Louis gospel music on Sunday night. I don't make a distinction. I didn't grow up saying one's good and one's bad. And nobody could convince me of that because my environment said either you believe in God or you don't, period. The church you go to is less important than the fact that you're going to church.
So my first experiences of spirituality were songs sung in the kitchen by my grandmother. And if the songs that you hear in church are sung in the kitchen as well, then you get a different sense of how religious piety is not confined or ghettoized in a so-called sacred space.
What influence has black spirituality had on spirituality in general?
Look around. Whatever happened in the black community in the 1940s is happening in the whole country in the 1990s. And if you don't study black history, then you don't understand why the suburbs are unsafe to live in today.
Now, if an Italian American mother does not understand what to do about her son who's on cocaine or crack, I'll bet you one thing, "Precious Lord Take My Hand" will help her out as much as it helped my mother out. But that Italian American mother has to know that her experience, while it may be new to her, is old to America.
And when we are confronting these sorts of ills on an epidemic level in American society, the response has to be profoundly spiritual. So why not go to a source - namely African American spirituality - that had a heroic spiritual response to the alienation, oppression, destruction and fragmentation of the family that slavery caused?
What is the traditional African American spiritual response to suffering and despair?
I like to argue that you don't find any notion of original sin in early black American theology. That makes it radically different from the biblical notions of sinfulness, because the chosen people were punished by being made slaves for turning their backs on God.
However, in African American spirituality, I am already a slave when I find God, so I have a different expectation; I'm expecting God to do for me:
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, D'liver Daniel, d'liver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, And why not-a every man?
I'm already in the condition of enslavement, so if you come and deliver me from slavery, I'll be faithful to you.
These songs say that I'm not a slave because of my sin but because of the sinfulness of somebody else. Therefore, I am a victim but not of my inherent nature. Privately I can talk about how you made me down low, but as the song says, "I don't feel no ways tired. I don't feel no ways low." That's part of black theology, but, unfortunately, nowadays you get more of a sense of black inferiority than you ever had historically, because I think we've become divorced from our history, black and white alike.
Why aren't there more black Catholics in America?
Because the Catholic Church in America had to become American, and if it was to be American, it had to stop people at the gate - not at the door, but at the gate to the altar. Why would I want to go a church that would never let me participate in it fully?
The Protestant churches have a tradition of saying you're still Baptist even if you're a black Baptist. The Catholic Church didn't say that.
And since the 1780s, blacks fought to get control of money and property to have their own congregations, and if the Methodist Church wouldn't let them do it, they started the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but they were still Methodist in their creed. If you wanted to be Catholic, you didn't have that choice.
Intellectually and philosophically the theology of Catholicism is in perfect harmony with the theology of traditional West African religion as I see it, but the problem is political.
What similarities do you see between African religions and Catholic spirituality?
The communion of the saints, for one. It's interesting to study West African traditional religions because they also believe that nobody dies as long as they are respected and revered and as long as their names are called by the community in prayer. This sounds vaguely like the Litany of Saints to me.
When people worry about those souls who are still restless and perform proper rites in order to make them feel comfortable, what's that but an early version of purgatory? I don't see a distinction to be made. The farther back I go, the more I realize that if there is a cultural root to Catholicism, it's African.
Has African voodoo played a part in African American spirituality?
A lot of what was called voodoo in the Caribbean and Atlantic African religions is an amalgamation of cultural practices. The Africans, who were told point blank that they could not participate fully in the Catholic rituals, saw that a lot of the rituals were familiar to them, and they recreated them with some of the European Christian language.
But in the West African Yoruba religion, which really influenced so much of the transatlantic slave trade, you will find Shango, Oya, Damballah, and all sorts of people who are remembered, revered, and called on for intercession in the daily lives of the people. They would be like the major saints of the Catholic Church; they're not gods, but neither are the saints.
Isn't voodoo superstition?
Superstition is what you do outside of the church that I, as a priest, don't control. When the clerical order controls ritual, it's theology. When women do it, it's witchcraft. When the slaves do it, it's voodoo.
For example, if I bless you with oil, it's sacramental. If you go down to a botanical shop and buy some oil, it's superstition. Well what's the difference?
I'm ordained to preach, teach, and offer the sacraments. But you're ordained to do all that praying and blessing. That's a long-standing tradition in all Christian belief. But African peoples had to create an independent system because they were denied access to control of the sacraments - they were not going to be priests and abbesses.
Some African-based religious practices that were labeled voodoo are biblical. Take spirit possession - every prophet who said, "Thus speaketh the Lord," went into some kind of a possession so that the word came forth, be it Saul, Samuel, or Deborah. Now I don't find that to be unusual or uncommon. I also don't find the way African people who do drum dances until they become possessed by the spirit radically different from the prophets and saints who did so.
Techniques for automatic prayer: repetitive motion and sound, rhythmic breathing, and trances are part of all cultures - the Hindu mantra, the Greek and Arabic prayer beads, the rosary. People who use these mystical rituals are able to speak some spiritual wisdom for the community.
What can the Catholic Church do to make Catholicism more appealing to African Americans?
Your question betrays the problem. We're Catholics. It's not them and us. What are you going to do to invite more people into your church? You're as Catholic as the pope. You're as Catholic as the archbishop or cardinal of the city. Until you believe that, nothing's going to change.
What have you done to let people know that the Catholic Church is theirs? Now that means you have to go to your pastor and say, excuse me, that sermon did not work, and if you ever want more black folks, you'd better learn how to preach. If it's your church, it's your obligation.
Do you have a problem with white ministers trying to acquire expressions of African spirituality in their services?
No. I devote my life to that. But I challenge anybody who thinks that they can be divinely inspired to do that with no follow-through. The late Sister Thea Bowman, F.S.P.A. taught me so much in the years that I knew her at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies. Talk about black spirituality - that woman lived it.
The motive at the Institute is to train those who are ministering in the black community. Thea used to say, "If you're going to come into my house, act like you know who I am, and act like we have something to teach you."
Don't dress down, talk jargon and slang, and give high fives at Mass, we don't need that.
I am absolutely committed to people who want to do the right thing and understand the spirituality of the community to which they're ministering. But they need to learn how to do that.
What has kept you Catholic?
Why wouldn't I want to be a Catholic? I was born a Catholic. I believe that you will effect your salvation where you stand.
There would be no reason for me to leave. It simply makes sense for me to be a Catholic; it is my heritage. I could not go to any church and not find racism, stupidity, ignorance, and prejudice. That's in church because we're human beings.
If there's going to be prejudice everywhere, there's going to be difficulty in a storm everywhere you go, so why not deal with the storm you're in?
RELATED ARTICLE: What's most important to your spiritality?
It's all about the cross. It's all about the crucifixion. There were a lot of people involved in the crucifixion in my spirituality. Judas did the best he could with what he had, and Jesus never hated him. Some Eastern churches have canonized Judas because he was an instrument in God's plan. But I've always believed that Jesus couldn't have come back out the tomb if his mama hadn't been standing there the whole time.
Now she was as important to him at the crucifixion as anyone because she never, ever stopped believing in him even though he didn't give her a lot of encouragement. Every account tells us she stood there and watched her son die, and she said I refuse to let this be it. He couldn't let her down.
That's a part of spirituality that we all have to learn nowadays. Whatever are we going to do about AIDS? Whatever are we going to do about the teenagers who bring children into this world? We've got to understand something about the cross in our daily lives and look at it from the point of view that this is not the end.
That kind of a spirituality is still in black believers. It had to be in them to get them through slavery and the breakdown of the family, and it has to carry them through the infusion of drugs into the community.
I see a lot of Marys and Johns looking at the crucifix and saying, "This is not it." That commitment to stand through to death is the African American legacy today to the whole church. But we will never arrive at that commitment until we stare at the crucifix and call it for what it is. That's where I think we are abdicating our responsibility as believers.
We don't want to name the cross, therefore we can't get through the cross.
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|Title Annotation:||interview with Father Joseph Brown, SJ|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1995|
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